Left in the dark

By Jonathan Koepke

Just imagine that you are sitting down to your favorite episode of “The Simpsons.” You have your Cajun Pringles and a glass of milk, and out of nowhere the electricity goes out. Worse yet, imagine that you have just had one of the single worst days of your investment banking career, and you just lost $100,000 on the stock market. Some guy spilled coffee on your new Armani suit, and all you want to do is get in the elevator and get down to your BMW Z3 convertible and drive like hell for the beach.

As you enter the elevator, you notice that the really big, smelly guy from the office down the hall gets in the elevator with you. You give him the friendly nod, and you start to descend when the power cuts out. Now without lights or air conditioning, you must spend the next two hours of your life with your worst nightmare.

For us, this may be closer to reality than we may want to think about. Just ask anyone in California experiencing an energy shortage and blackouts, and they will agree.

Energy is a precious thing. Ask any astrophysicist. We are slipping toward entropy. (Well, really, really slowly.) Nonetheless, as a nation, we have a limited supply of energy because we have limited resources of fossil fuels which make up the majority of fuel that we burn to create electricity. For those of us who have never thought about where electricity comes from, or have been sliding through our education by cheating off of the test from the girl in front of us our whole lives, let us recap.

This magical force is created for public consumption by turning two really big electromagnets across each other in something called a turbine. A turbine can be turned by any force or motion. In most cases, water is heated and boiled until it creates steam, and the steam power turns the turbine.

Typically, coal is used to heat the water, yet in some power plants they use something called fission. Now, no one likes fission any more because of some place in Russia called Churn-Rubble or some island in the Atlantic that is like three miles long or something like that.

Anyway, turbines also can be turned by using wind power, like in windmills, or by flowing water, like in dams. There also is some kind of solar thing that makes electricity by having the sun hit it and making the sunshine turn into power for my curling iron and stuff. Who cares, anyway?

Well, when you have electricity shortages, people really start to care because they can’t get their work done or do anything anymore without it. Inevitably, our ability to function has become completely dependent upon the technology which supports our society. This, of course, is an element of any society, but it brings to question why it is happening and how the problem can be solved.

The problem as it occurs to me is that there are just too many people with too many gadgets and gizmos, and the resulting inefficiency chokes the power-producing companies because they cannot meet demand. According to the Energy Information Administration, we in America consume more than 50 percent of the energy consumed worldwide, and quite frankly we cannot continue to consume at such exorbitant rates.

Meanwhile, various political and media sources, including President George W. Bush, are attacking environmentalists and regulations as the cause of the rolling blackouts in California. The latest Associated Press announcements say that President Bush is pushing for widespread deregulation of California’s power industry. This push could lead to higher emission levels as well as increased energy prices and consumption levels. Environmentalists are taking the blame because for years they have been resistant to building more power plants and have pushed for greater restrictions for plant emissions, thus making plants cleaner but slightly less productive.

It will be interesting to see how California resolves its problem because it will be indicative of how other states and nations will react to power shortages that they may experience in the future if new and more efficient sources of energy are not developed.

If panic cannot be diverted when a minor problem occurs, it is scary to think of what things may look like when we really start running into problems later as population increases and the handy and cheap supply of natural resources decreases accordingly.

The way it looks now, we may be attaching generators to the little play wheels for mice and rats, so that when they run in them we can power a light bulb to read by. Or even worse, if you want to watch TV, you may have to pedal the exercise bike or jog the treadmill. Then again, that may be one way to curb the fitness problem that plagues our society.

Ultimately, it seems the best solution may be rationality and conservation. Finding more efficient uses of our energy and more energy-efficient appliances and lighting may be a key to solving supply issues. Then again, consuming less may be the greatest sin in America today. Also, turning to more diversified and sustainable sources of power may also lead to a long-term solution to power shortages both in California and across the nation.